As Vancouver-based artist Ryan Heshka prepares for the opening of his “Strange Powers” show, debuting this Friday, May 21st at Rotofugi Gallery in Chicago, HF contributor Nathan Spoor managed to score a few minutes with the illustrator and ask a few questions regarding his work, commercial success, and creative process. Check out the interview and some teaser images from the upcoming show below.
So Ryan, tell us about your work. It has a very vintage comic book feel to it, and has a very strong narrative running through each piece. Was there a moment when you just knew that this was your voice, or did you grow into this state?
I definitely “grew into this state”. I have been absorbing all sorts of imagery for close to forty years, and this is the current state of my evolution as an artist. However, I have been drawing since I was a kid, and many of the themes have remained constant – giant animals/insects, superheroes, epic battles, monsters. I guess maybe it’s the technical aspect of my art that has evolved.
I think the narrative in my art that has developed has been more of a relatively recent addition. Its something I have always admired in my favorite artists, so it naturally found its way into my work. I also watch loads of movies, so I subconsciously think cinematically sometimes while painting/creating. I sort of drift off and begin to imagine images as scenes in a lost film.
When you are creating a work, does it have a story involved of some sort and is there a larger concept of thinking at play?
Most of the pieces I paint do have a short story worked into them, and I try to capture the important or “key” moment within that story, whatever it is or however loose it may be.
The big picture for me is to create pieces that all become part of a cohesive “world”… so that if you looked at my paintings as a group, they would appear to be from the same world. Since my content ranges from cartoon animals to sci fi and horror, not all pieces are going to link up in the same “world”, but generally, when I’m creating a body of work for a show or a project, this is the intention.
You have a new show opening soon, and I wondered if you could take a few moments to tell us about that in particular. I’m quite curious as to how your images arrive for such an occasion. Do they step into your psyche single file and neatly ordered, or do they storm the gates and demand to be produced?
This new show in Chicago is curated and presented by Monte Beauchamp of BLAB!. While I can’t divulge the nature of the project that these works are being created for, I will say that the pieces were art directed my Monte and myself with the intent to be turned into a published project down the road. This has been a different sort of process for me, as I usually just choose a theme or concept and spin off paintings from that with no outside voices. But for this show, the concept has been tighter, and Monte and I have had a ton of fun coming up with crazy scenarios for our characters to react to.
There was no order to how the images presented themselves. Sometimes Monte would give me a one line description and I’d go from there. Other times I’d spring sketches on him and he’d pick out his favorites. I would paint the images when I thought they were ready to be painted.
In your creative world, what importance does non-gallery work hold for you? Does illustration or commission work add any insight to your view on the fine art aspects of what you create?
The greatest skill I have gained from commercial work (and commissions to a lesser degree) has been time management. You have to learn to do your best work quickly, and put your brush down when you are satisfied with the result. I couldn’t paint shows without this. I’d noodle around on a painting forever.
Also, just dealing with professionals every week has given me confidence and a professionalism that I can bring to galleries.
So many incredible artists have risen from commercial art careers (Warhol, Hopper, etc.), and I find it very inspiring that these individuals have found a way to tell their own types of stories in their art. But they learned their craft in the commercial world.
When you address a new piece, do you sketch out the idea beforehand or is it a direct and immediate action?
Always a sketch. One day maybe I’ll have the confidence to go directly into painting, but I like to work it out first, to make sure I won’t be wasting my time down the road. The composition is worked out as a tiny thumbnail, and then I blow that up and add important details. However, there is always some spontaneity I like to bring to the finished painting, which doesn’t appear in the sketches. I guess I like to surprise myself a bit to keep my interest in a painting.
What do you feel has been an indispensable tool or thought process for you to create your work?
Probably the need to make each painting better than the one before it. I will recycle some themes or characters that I have grown to like, but I will always make an effort to make sure what I’m painting is the best I can do at that moment. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way, but I think that only drives me to do even better with the next piece.
Do you have a specific time or space that you find most conducive to being creative or making art?
Not really … the key for me is to be able to dedicate a large block of time to a painting, so that my mind is fully engulfed in what is happening in the painting. By getting into “the zone”, I tend to think ahead and make better decisions while painting.
I used to be able to work late at night, but these days I find that if I start at 9 a.m., I’m finished by 9 p.m. That’s about as late as I can work and still be productive.
Does being creative envelop everything and every moment of your life, or do you have other things that you enjoy or pursue?
Well, it does take up most of my time. it’s a bit of an obsession. But my fiancée does get me out for a run, or make sure I am socializing and taking full days off when I can afford the time.
I love the spring and summer up here in Vancouver, and while its easy to paint when its raining in the winter, its just as easy to play hooky in the summer and go for a swim or meet friends on a patio somewhere.
But all in all, I do live and breathe art and collect objects that inspire me – old toys, comics, pulps, pulp art, and images of all kinds.
What is in store for the viewers in Ryan Heshka’s future?
I have my first children’s book coming out this summer, “Welcome to Monster Town”, published by Henry Holt in NY. There are follow up books in the works, and I fully intend to pursue children’s books as another facet of my career. I enjoy working on them immensely. Dr. Seuss is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I’ve always had the itch to do children’s books. I think more like a child than an adult in many ways, so it’s easy to connect to that world.
Eventually, I would like to be more involved with film and animation. I just bought a super 8mm film camera, and hope to produce some short films to be shown at future art shows. We’ll see if I can find the time to do this!
Do you have any parting comments or advice for the readers as we part ways for the time being?
Stick close to your dreams.